Labor

The Union Doesn't Get Jack

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Democrats hope an Obama presidency will bring a surge in union power. Republicans fear an Obama presidency will bring … a surge in union power. A contrarian piece by the Manhattan Institute's Steven Malanga argues that they're both wrong:

[T]he long decline in union participation in this country isn't about to be reversed by a few federal laws. Indeed, despite a lack of success in Washington promoting card-check legislation, labor has been winning legislative victories for years at the state and local level, where they've been able to pass bushels of labor-friendly laws which nonetheless have had no discernable impact on their membership.

Today, for instance, some 32 states have so-called prevailing wage laws that require companies in certain industries that do business with government, especially construction firms, to pay their workers essentially what union members make. These laws are aimed at making it uncompetitive for government to hire non-union shops, thereby slowing their rise….

The results of these hundreds of laws and backdoor deals are hardly impressive. Take construction, the one industry most affected by such laws–and an industry that, unlike manufacturing, can't be outsourced overseas. Even though government controls about 25 percent of all construction in the country, in the last 30 years, according to research by economists David Macpherson and Barry Hirsch, unionization in the construction industry has declined by nearly two-thirds to just 14 percent of all workers, from 38 percent. The decline has been relentless through Democratic and Republican presidential administrations.

Meanwhile, over at The Art of the Possible, the even-more-contrarian Kevin Carson calls on labor militants to try their luck organizing with neither the help nor the hindrance of the state.

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  1. A contrarian piece by the Manhattan Institute’s Steven Malanga argues that they’re both wrong:

    Is that Cathy Young’s new pen name?

  2. My university hires all-union people. Thus, when I moved out of my freshman dorm, we were warned that if our chair was deemed damaged, we would not only pay for a new chair, but for two men to take it down the single story to the dumpster. This was a chair that I, a 5’7″ skinny white guy, could easily throw down the hall. That’s only an example, too – every possible problem was this way.

  3. When I was in Hattiesburg yesterday, there was an annoying radio message about the evils of union attempts to do away with secret ballots and how the union leaders could come to your house to harass you into joining a union. I think who ever devised the message forgot that Mississippi has never been union friendly.

  4. What I don’t get, and hopefully joe will be by shortly to fill us all in, is how a secret ballot is not *good enough* of a method to ensure a majority of members of a shop want to unionize.

    I’m not even reflexively anti-Union, and yet Card Check seems to me like an engraved invitation to abuse.

  5. What I don’t get, and hopefully joe will be by shortly to fill us all in, is how a secret ballot is not *good enough* of a method to ensure a majority of members of a shop want to unionize.

    I believe the pro-union line is that secret ballots give companies the opportunity to threaten and abuse their employees into voting against the union.

    Try typing that and keeping a straight face.

    Apparently, the only way to have fair elections is to (a) prevent one side from knowing they are occurring at all, and (b) allow the other side to have as long as they want, with as many face-to-face meetings that they want, to accumulate ballots that can only be cast in their favor.

  6. The question I have is why haven’t these little legal tweaks sent people rallying to join unions?

    Is worker solidarity or just union strong arming just not worth it on a cost/benefit basis?

    Has the “Union” brand been devalued?

    Have too many people joined the petite bourgeois so they don’t identify with the “working mans champions”?

  7. RCD —

    I figured it was something along those lines, but I would prefer to hear the argument from someone who’s making it in earnest, for fairness’ sake. 😉

  8. Unions are fucked because of the very way they operate–through intimidation, and stupid, stupid practices. Getting card check will only accelerate their demise.

  9. “Has the “Union” brand been devalued?”

    Yes it has. Unions have represented too many people in cushy government jobs and $20 an hour obsolete wrench turning assemblyline jobs to have much credibility with people anymore. Moreover, they let themselves get coopted into leftist causes rather than the issues that matter to their workers. People wonder why the hell they are paying dues to a trade union to support lobbying against GM crops or universal healthcare.

    The other thing that really soured people on unions ironically enough is closed shops. If a shop is open, the union has an incentive to fight for you individually because if you are fired there is no gaurentee that your replacement is going to join the union. If the shop is closed, the union could care less if you are fired because you will be replaced with a dues paying member. Once unions started to get closed shop, they stopped giving a shit about their individual members and caring only about numbers and money.

  10. Unions are pretty much dead, with one exception. Political campaigns still have to worry about them, because they have a loud bark, but they really don’t have any bite anymore. Except for teachers unions.

    In California, the CTA is a political force that makes even Arnold tremble in fear. Only the prison guard union comes close (but with none of the goodwill teachers get). All public school teachers must pay union dues, even if they are not a member. So you get a state mandated monopoly combined with state mandated dues leading to an impressive political machine.

  11. Have too many people joined the petite bourgeois so they don’t identify with the “working mans champions”?

    I’m sure this is a part of it.

    Also, in the construction industry, I’m guessing non-union shops are highly motivated to keep their workers happy lest said workers become demoralized and then form a union, thereby giving the owners a whole new set of headaches.

  12. Of course, neither elections nor card checks that designate a union as the exclusive agent for all workers in a “bargaining unit” are fair. The labor laws that set up that regime strip individual employees who do not want the union representing them of their rights to negotiate for themselves, or to select some other agent, and violate their employers’ right to contract, also.

    Kevin

  13. Brandybuck,

    Public employees unions are still very powerful and in the case of police unions a menace to the public good.

  14. Unions are dinosaurs for the same reason that women’s-rights groups are dinosaurs: they’re always behind the curve of progress. The result is an organization that is little more than a shakedown gang. But this gang is more brazen than most: it extorts its loot from both the employer and the employed. For this they are called “humanitarians.”

  15. Unions in the private secor are flopping around like beached fish. The unions that represent the public school teachers, the SWAT teams, the post office and pentagon janitors are doing quite well.

    IMHO, Chrysler will make an attempt to crush the UAW in the next couple of years.

  16. I see people preceded me in decrying public employee unions.

    Think of the implications of public employee unions. The elected representatives of the free people would not provide adequate or “fair” compensation for their workers if left alone. The electorate would approve of this by returning them to office.

  17. Speaking of Chrysler, they’re closing their Newark, DE plant… Granted, they were building Durangos and Aspens there, but nobody’s chomping at the bit to take their place to build cars or do any sort of old-line industrial work.. People wonder why the booming non-big-3 auto industry is building plants in MS, AL, GA, TN? Take a look at this map and notice one thing: all the states in which Toyota, Honda, VW, etc. are planning or building new plants in the USA are all in one particular sort of state..

    http://www.nrtw.org/images/us-map.gif

    And on top of that, DE has a prevailing wage law so that bidders on public projects have to submit to wage control.

    DE is smaller than NH, in theory it would be a better place to ‘invade’ and develop a truly Libertarian state gov’t.. Meh.

  18. “Apparently, the only way to have fair elections is to (a) prevent one side from knowing they are occurring at all, and (b) allow the other side to have as long as they want, with as many face-to-face meetings that they want, to accumulate ballots that can only be cast in their favor.”

    Shit!! Now my election strategy has been revealed…

  19. J sub D,

    The funny thing about public employee unions is they can’t negotiate about the things that matter, wages and benefits. They can only whine about things that don’t, things like you moved my office to a small cube, and endlessly lobby the government for more public spending. Basically they serve none of the functions of a union and are just employee subsidized lobbyists for big government.

  20. In the old days, the unions ushered in the 40 hour work week, fair labor practices, and an end to child labor. These days they just vandalize your car if don’t join them.

    How the mighty have fallen…

  21. The story of the unions and the auto industry is an interesting one. The UAW basically killed all of the old car companies outside of the big three. The UAW demanded the same pay from every company regardless of the company’s ability to pay. When companies like Packard and Studebaker got into trouble they went to the UAW and tried to get concessions in order to stay in business. The UAW said screw you. They didn’t think that there would ever be any foreign competition to the US auto industry. So they didn’t care if there was one company or ten, they would always be unionized and Packard going belly up just meant the jobs would shift to Ford or GM and there was no sweat off of the UAW’s back.

    It was a classic example of a union only thinking of the bottom-line and not the individual worker. Those workers who would have gladly taken a lower wage to stay employed were basically nailed to the cross of unionism. Further, the US auto industry ended up much less competitive as a result. Had the UAW been flexible and let companies like Studebaker and Packard survive, those companies very well may have adopted the industrial techniques the Japanese did and produced better cars. Instead, we ended up with a moribund auto industry tied into unsustainable union contracts.

  22. Ken,
    “Take a look at this map and notice one thing: all the states in which Toyota, Honda, VW, etc. are planning or building new plants in the USA are all in one particular sort of state.”

    Um, the Bible Belt? 🙂

  23. they were building Durangos and Aspens there,
    but nobody’s chomping at the bit to take their place

    The word is “champing.” Champing at the bit. You’re welcome.

  24. John,
    “They didn’t think that there would ever be any foreign competition to the US auto industry.”

    Or they just didn’t care, cause they’d be retired by then…

  25. The word is “champing.” Champing at the bit. You’re welcome.

    Hey, it’d a didactic prick who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    In conversational English, both “champing at the bit” and “chomping at the bit” are acceptable spellings for the common idiom.

  26. I’ve got a friend who says it “biting at the chomps”. I love that.

  27. If State Law already guarantees me a Union wage indirectly, then why would I join the Union and pay dues?

    I think the Union guys outsmarted themselves.

  28. In the old days, the unions ushered in the 40 hour work week, fair labor practices, and an end to child labor.

    Myths. Just because a union puts it on a bumper sticker doesn’t mean it’s true.

    40 hour work week: The decline in the number of hours worked has continued apace regardless of unions. Rested and alert employees are productive employees. State and federal laws on overtime merely follow the existing convention. For salaried positions where there are not legal restrictions against longer work weeks, longer work weeks are still rare except for certain professions.

    Fair labor practices: “Fair” means pro-union in this sense. There’s nothing equitable about it. I have seen one shop (a vwinery) where unionization led to decreased wages, because the winery was already paying above “prevailing” wages. The management was in support of the union because it meant they didn’t have to pay premium wages to attrack employees from their unionized competitors.

    Child labor: Rising wealth led to the reduction of child labor. Unions had very little to do with it. Child labor had essentially left the factories by the time unions got enough power to influence legislation. But child labor isn’t gone. Thank goodness. Getting a job and learning how the economic world works is an essential part of growing up. I had summer (and winter) jobs growing up, and I suspect most people on this form had as well.

  29. Brandybuck…

    Source?

  30. Brandybuck,

    I never let the truth get in the way of a good rant… 🙂

  31. Government controls a quarter of all construction – that’s a pretty incredible claim not to be backed up by a source.

  32. Thanks for the link, Jesse.

    John: I used to work in a unionized VA hospital. You’re right about the wages and hours thing, but it was still nice to have a grievance procedure, and be able to call in a steward to witness a confrontation with a psychotic boss. I had a ward supervisor who would scream until her face was black and the veins stood out–but if you said “just a minute, I want to call Dave to witness this,” she could turn it off like a light switch.

  33. “Government controls a quarter of all construction – that’s a pretty incredible claim not to be backed up by a source.”

    I can’t back it up (but then, I didn’t say it), but think of all the road construction, schools, low income housing, etc.

    Seems plausible, at least.

  34. Who will bring about a surge in Confederate power?

  35. “Government controls a quarter of all construction – that’s a pretty incredible claim not to be backed up by a source.”

    Eminently plausible, to me. After all, isn’t that about the percentage of GDP spent by the government?

  36. Source?

    In a nutshell, the unions took credit for government legislation that merely codified existing practice.

    “The shorter work week is entirely a capitalist invention. As capital investment caused the marginal productivity of labor to increase over time, less labor was required to produce the same levels of output. As competition became more intense, many employers competed for the best employees by offering both better pay and shorter hours. Those who did not offer shorter work weeks were compelled by the forces of competition to offer higher compensating wages or become uncompetitive in the labor market. ”

    “Capitalistic competition is also why “child labor” has all but disappeared, despite unionist claims to the contrary. Young people originally left the farms to work in harsh factory conditions because it was a matter of survival for them and their families. But as workers became better paid-thanks to capital investment and subsequent productivity improvements-more and more people could afford to keep their children at home and in school. Union-backed legislation prohibiting child labor came after the decline in child labor had already begun.”

    Source: http://mises.org/story/1590

  37. Brandybuck,

    In other words, you’re quoting the official Mises.Org dogma (aka interpretation or opinion) about what happened, not any real factual evidence. I’m quite aware of their assertions, among other things, that 1) marginal productivity determines wages, and 2) the early factories were worked by people who voluntarily fled the countryside because farm work was so damned hard. Unfortunately, the ideological schema that the Misoids impose on history doesn’t hold up very well to critical inspection.

    Point 1, for instance, might be true in a free market. But since we don’t have a free market, it doesn’t have much to do with the price of tea in China. In fact, wages have been completely decoupled from the productivity of labor for the past thirty years.

    Point ignores inconvenient items like the Enclosures, and the fact that when rural people had independent access to sufficient land for comfortable subsistence, they overwhelmingly chose farming over factory work. That was, in fact, one of the main motivations for the Enclosures. The press of the period was full of complaints by the employing classes that people wouldn’t work hard enough or long enough for property owners to profit off of them, unless they were forcibly deprived of any alternative.

    The typical m.o. at Mises.Org is to repeat the gospel according to St. Mises and St. Reisman. And when a commenter like quasibill or P.M. Lawrence who knows some history runs logical and evidential circles around them, they just keep repeating the dogma like nobody’d ever said anything. And if the commenter continues poking holes in their received version of history, they get banned.

  38. The results of these hundreds of laws and backdoor deals are hardly impressive.

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